A Reason to Smile
When I saw my brother Willie fling his bicycle down onto the lawn, I knew that we were in big trouble. My husband and I had arrived in South Carolina for a family vacation the night before, and already my fear was realized: Willie was having a meltdown. When I looked at my parents, I could see the tension on their faces; it was the same strain I felt on my own. When Willie had started getting agitated, my parents sent him on a bike ride with Dad accompanying him. On the ride, Willie bit himself in the upper arm, hard enough to leave a massive bruise. Hurling his bike to the ground outside our unit was the grand finale. Willie hadn't harmed anyone but himself, and he was beginning to de-escalate by the time he re-entered our unit.
I'd been writing in my journal before Willie and Dad had returned from their ride. Though I tried to turn my mind to other topics, my hand seemed to move across the page of its own volition. I wrote, “It's scary that, in the time it takes for me to write a single sentence, the situation with Willie could change completely.” As I wrote, my parents puzzled over the trigger point from this latest “crash”; I thought about it too. And, not for the first time, I wished we could have had a professional, competent, and caring third party—say, an expert behavioral therapist—on hand to help us assess what had happened with Willie. But there was no such therapist present; there was just us. We are Willie's family and we love him, but sometimes we aren't sure how best to help him. And at times, the weight of our collective uncertainty seems unbearable.
After Willie's meltdown, uneasiness lingered in the air. Then, as though on cue, I received an unexpected message from a friend, one who'd been generous enough to take care of our kitten while we were in South Carolina. The kindly-worded text revealed that our cat had fleas—a problem that hadn't been evident before our departure—and that she'd need treatment immediately. (All I could do was apologize profusely, and give consent for the kitten to receive a bath.) Having received that message, I walked out the back door to the deck to take some deep breaths. Instead, I started crying. I felt so powerless, so unable to mitigate either of the troubling situations before me. As I sat overlooking a small lagoon, it was tempting to “end” the story there. It was tempting to pass judgment on the entire vacation based on that first rocky morning. However, as I dried the tears from my cheeks, I made the radical decision not to judge Willie for melting down, nor myself for ignorance of our cat's fleas. With considerable effort, I decided to keep my heart open.
Slowly, the tide began to turn. After that first difficult morning, we started building good memories together. When Willie calmed down, I sat with him and worked on a Disney puzzle; it helped us both to do something as simple as putting the pieces together. Later, he read to me from his French illustrated dictionary, and I marveled at his authentic-sounding accent. We went on a bike ride together, and played in the surf as well. And on the last morning of our trip, just as my husband and I were about to say goodbye and start our journey back to Alabama, I bounced over to my brother and asked if we could take an arms-length photo.
When Willie poses for pictures, my parents and I struggle to get authentic smiles from him. It's rare that we're able to get a good shot, but somehow, that morning, I knew just what to do. With one arm wrapped around Willie and one arm holding the camera, I said, “Smile!” just as I reached over and tickled him on his side. The result? My favorite picture of my younger brother … one that reminds me that there is beauty on the other side of suffering. And that, today, is my reason to smile.